A relocation of the Phoenix Coyotes to Winnipeg would be for many Manitobans, and indeed many Canadians, the righting of a great historical wrong.
As many in Winnipeg will tell you, the city was robbed of its beloved Jets in the mid-1990s by greedy owners in search of American capital.
However, we Canadians too often allow our love of hockey to obscure the economic realities of maintaining an NHL franchise in a Canadian city.
When the Winnipeg Jets were relocated to Phoenix, Arizona following the 1995-96 season, the city was the league’s smallest market.
During the team’s 17-year tenure in the NHL, regular season attendance never averaged more than 13,694.
Average attendance during their final season was 11,316.
NHL expansion throughout the US in the 1990s saw player’s salaries—which averaged $892,000 in 1995-96—and team operating costs rise considerably.
Unable to afford the top talent necessary to compete in an expanding league, the team had no choice but to relocate to seemingly greener hockey pastures in the Arizona desert.
Fast forward 15 years.
At 633,451 people according to the most recent (2006) census, Winnipeg would again be the NHL’s smallest market.
In fact, its population has declined by five percent since 1996.
Its corporate presence is roughly half that of other smaller Canadian markets like Calgary and Edmonton.
The MTS Centre, the likely home of a new Winnipeg franchise, would also be the smallest arena in the league with only 15,000 seats and 47 luxury suites.
With the average NHL salary at $2.4 million, and limited national television money, owners are more reliant than ever on ticket receipts and venue revenues.
Even if a new Winnipeg team manages to sell out every single game, it will most likely still be spending well short of the $59.4 million salary cap, meaning it will once again not be able to afford the league’s top talent.
Will a Winnipeg franchise be able to consistently attract ticket buyers and corporate interest even if the team proves no more successful than the Phoenix Coyotes who have never made it out of the first round of the playoffs?
Given the small market and lack of corporate presence, it most likely will not.
Ilya Bryzgalov’s recent refusal to move to Winnipeg because of the city’s climate and lack of entertainment raises another legitimate concern.
While the city probably has its own charm, it is not by any means a major cultural or commercial centre.
Winters are undeniably long, the crime rate is above the national average and even most Canadian tourists will tell you the thing they remember most is the mosquitoes.
The Edmonton Oilers, another small market Canadian franchise, have had trouble attracting talent in recent years to the city of Edmonton—and that's despite the club’s long history, loyal fan base and five Stanley Cups.
There's no reason to expect Winnipeg to have an easier time.
The love Canadians have for hockey aside, Winnipeg cannot support a team that is capable of generating success both on and off the ice in the league’s present economic landscape.